One of things I love most about Marla Frazee’s projects is the way she chooses them. “When I read a book to consider illustrating I don't want to fully understand it. I want to puzzle it out,” says Frazee. “I almost want to be afraid of it.” You can see just what she means when you look at her artwork for Stars by Mary Lyn Ray. The text is poetic and lyrical and closely observed, yet it does not include a set group of characters. Frazee found ways to connect the images and build relationships among characters so that you feel an emotional connection to them.
Frazee spoke at the Society of Illustrators in the same presentation as Stephen Savage (which I mentioned last week). She said the text of Stars reminded her of Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Krauss, a former teacher, once said something along the lines of she hoped her students didn’t sue her for lifting their conversations verbatim and recording them in the book. Stars has that same loose, free-associative quality as Krauss’s book.
If you look at Frazee’s illustrations for All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, and Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, the same is true there, too. Frazee creates the narrative through line with her images. We recognize her characters from certain details—pigtails, a slouchy posture, striped onesies, overalls. Although they go unnamed, we feel as if we know them.
Marla Frazee’s Web site, in addition to showing a picture of her studio under an avocado tree (she's sitting on the porch of her studio with Rocket, above), gives all sorts of insights into her work. At the Society of Illustrators, she talked about how she starts with a series of single images. “Sometimes the way into a book is just that--just a way to get started. Like you tend to have polite conversation and then you click,” she said, adding that you have to give yourself permission to make mistakes.
She talked about painting with a tiny brush. It made me look anew at the spread of the yellow sky with its hundreds of dandelion seeds, and the winter scene veiled by snowflakes (“Of course each one had to be unique,” Frazee said with a laugh). Cecilia Yung, art director at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who helped organize the presentation, made this wonderful observation: “The starring character is the sky.” Going back through Stars after that, I thought about the sky’s many moods, and how it envelops the stars in all its incarnations—as celestial body, as the blossom shape that precedes the pumpkin, and as the shiny kind a child keeps in his pocket or gives to a friend to lift her spirits. And that fireworks finale merges the human- and nature-made creative forces into one. Brava!